Depending on the kindness of strangers

In this post from yesterday, Adam Engst of TidBITS discusses how changes Apple made to Pages screwed up his workflow without warning. He contrasts Apple’s behavior with that of Bare Bones Software and how it handled a recent bug in BBEdit that also caused him grief. I’m sympathetic, but with some caveats.

First, I doubt there’s a single Mac user on the planet who hasn’t been put out by some software change Apple’s made in past couple of years. Whether it’s Safari, Preview, iTunes, Final Cut, or OS X itself, too many of the changes seem capricious and poorly thought out. In the 2000s, users looked forward to software updates from Apple. Yes, there would be bugs in the x.0 releases, but when those were fixed you had a genuinely better application to work with. Now, not so much.

Second, one of the problems Adam had with the latest version of Pages—the one in which graphics in a document come out the wrong size when exported to EPUB—is a real bug that should have been caught in testing. It’s a regression from the previous behavior and not exactly an edge case. He has every right to be pissed about it and how difficult it was for him to revert to a version of Pages that works.

On the other hand, Pages’ change from exporting graphics as <span>s to <div>s isn’t really a bug; it’s just a change. I’m not sure I can fault Apple for failing to alert users in the release notes. That kind of detail just doesn’t strike me as something Pages users get involved with.

In fact, the one constant in the history of word processors is their insistence on changing file formats. It’s the reason I quit using word processors over 15 years ago. I recognize that Adam, being a publisher and needing to work with several authors, doesn’t have the freedom I have, but as long as his workflow includes a word processor, he’s going to run into frustrations like this.

As for his praise of Bare Bones, I think his good experience with them was due in part to lucky timing. Don’t get me wrong: Bare Bones has always been responsive to my questions and bug reports—its customer service is second to none. But in this particular case, the reason Adam got such quick satisfaction when he found a bug in one of BBEdit’s Automator actions was that the bug had already been found by others and fixed in a beta. Had he run into that same bug a few weeks earlier, he still would’ve gotten great service from Bare Bones technical support, but he wouldn’t have had a solution in just 20 minutes.

In his introductory paragraph, Adam lays out the problem of working with software tools:

Like any craftsman, I care deeply about my tools, because without them, I can’t do my job. But unlike a carpenter or plumber, my tools change constantly, putting me in the unenviable position of having to evaluate each new version. Unfortunately, that’s impossible — I have to get my work done, not run test suites on every new version of my key applications. And while refusing to upgrade is always an option in the short term, it’s not something that can be put off forever, particularly if the new features and fixed bugs are important.

This is why I use as few applications as possible and why I stick to well-established file formats like text, JPEG, and PDF. When TextMate became unbearable, I was able to switch to BBEdit without leaving my reports behind. If Gus Mueller does something that breaks Acorn, I’ll switch to Pixelmator and still be able to edit my old photos.

As for the tools that work behind the scenes: My customized version of MultiMarkdown has seven or eight years of debugging behind it—it works the way I want it to, and if I ever screw it up by trying to add a feature, I’ll be able to revert to a working version. And TeX is, for all practical purposes, bug-free. I could even move to another operating system and these tools would keep working.

I like to think of my report-writing workflow as a hardened bunker, impervious to most disasters. It took some work to develop, but after years of putting up with the kinds of trouble Adam described, I decided I’d had enough. He may soon come to the same decision.